The call of a muezzin at deafening volume echoed from the hills surrounding the terrace of Beit Romano — a building in the Jewish enclave overlooking the West Bank town of Hebron. A group of about 40 participants, ranging in age from 14 to 79, waved a huge Israeli flag above the houses of the Palestinian city below, as they began a tour organized by the right-wing NGO, Im Tirtzu.
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“Hebron is a microcosm of the whole story: a narrow corridor of Jews, in the middle of a vast Arab city — like Israel within the Middle East,” says Im Tirtzu director Matan Peleg. It's a different version than the one visitors get on increasingly popular tours of the city, led by left-wing organizations like Breaking the Silence — tours which Peleg dubs “de-legitimization and lies."
Im Tirtzu felt a need to connect the Israeli public to the city, says Peleg. “The national camp had abandoned the field. No one had picked up the gauntlet. So we did.”
This is the organization's fourth tour. The goal is to have a weekly tour and reach 5,000 participants a year — with an emphasis on students.
Rather than get into the archaeology stories that he’s so fond of, Noam Arnon, spokesperson for the Jewish community in Hebron, in a deep voice that could barely be heard over the muezzin, focused on the Palestinians' economic situation: “Hebron exports 5 billion shekels a year to Israel: mattresses, nylon, plastic and clothes. It’s part of the Israeli economy, an affluent and bustling city. Others show you a street with closed shops and say, ‘This is Hebron, it’s a ghost town.’”
Sharon the photographer, who wears a silver Greater Israel pendant, says uneasily, “What you’re saying makes me sad,” and the group laughs awkwardly. One woman, a Likud voter from the suburbs of Haifa, asks, “Why do I need them as part of my country?” Arnon strokes his beard and reassures her: “Not all the Arabs are terrorists. It’s good that they want to integrate.”
Adar, whose architecture studies project is about Hebron, is one of the few leftists taking the tour. “I came to hear the other side,” he says. ”But I’ve been told that the attempt to create order in such a place is not legitimate because we don’t have the right to act here. I feel that this tour is confusing, because the settlers are talking to me in liberal language, the kind that I relate to. It’s not at all what I imagined.”
The group makes its way from the mountain to a beautiful observation point lined with olive trees. An Israel Defense Forces paratrooper curiously and hesitantly approaches the group and is showered with good wishes. One older man says to him: ‘May God protect you. I stood right here 30 years ago.” Others add, “I was here in February of ‘08” and “We were on the line here at the start of the intifada.” Four generations of soldiers blink in the sun and exchange pats on the back, and then grow quiet. “It’s nice that there’s finally a tour that’s supportive,” says the soldier. “Here they’re always out to get you.”
The group heads to the closed Shuhada ("Martyrs") Street, which the Jewish residents of Hebron refer to as King David Street. It used to be the city's main bustling market street, but the shops shut down after Israel closed the street to Palestinians. There on Shuhada Street the group has a chance encounter with an activist from the anti-occupation group, Breaking the Silence, who is being interviewed for Australian television. That riles things up a bit. “It breaks our heart that the Israeli public views us as trouble,” says Yishai Fleisher, the Jewish community’s international spokesperson. “We suffer because of this isolation, and Israeli society doesn’t understand the sacrifice we’re making for its sake.”
Fleisher likens the story of the purchase of the Cave of the Patriarchs to a “Mediterranean hafla,” or celebratory feast, when according to the Biblical account, Abraham gave 400 shekels of silver to Efron the Hittite, over a plate of hummus. The group walks to the cave and gathers together there, before a final prayer, to hear Arnon explain: “Jews are not permitted to enter the Hall of Isaac.” What he didn’t say is that this is because on this day 23 years ago, a Jewish settler from neighboring Kiryat Arba, Baruch Goldstein, massacred 29 Palestinians who were praying there.